It could be a mirage, a phantom filling station visible only in summer dusk: a stand of vintage gas pumps glowing with names that fuel America's macadam memories -- Sunoco, Sinclair, Esso, Texaco Fire Chief, Phillips 66, Pennzoil . . .
Several times a week, motorists deliberately pass this White Hall shrine to full service with a smile created by Fred Graefe, an antique car buff and "automobilia" collector. Displays inside and outside his rural Baltimore County home commemorate an era when uniformed service station attendants automatically washed the windshield, checked under the hood and inflated the tires on request.
His obsession is simple to understand, Mr. Graefe says: "I just always fooled around with cars. I took a liking to the cars, the sounds, the noises."
Mr. Graefe's grandparents opened Hoover's Service Station in Hereford in 1932. As a teen, he pumped gas there and his grandfather promised him the station when he returned from a stint in the service. "Junior, I'm saving this for when you come home," the elder Graefe had said.
In 1968, Mr. Graefe, with bride Mary Jane, took over the filling station as his grandfather had wished. (The familial love of things vehicular skipped a generation: Mr. Graefe's father, a carpenter, "changed his own oil, that was about the length of it," Fred Graefe says. His own son however, shares Fred's fascination and mechanical expertise.)
Hoover's, now the site of a package goods store, was an impromptu social center, where Sunday drivers stopped for gas, as well as penny candy, hand-dipped ice cream and local gossip. It was the filling station's place in the convivial folklore of the road as much as its mechanical trappings that captured Mr. Graefe's imagination.
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Graefe, now a district manager for Getty Petroleum, gently sifts through photos of old filling stations, including a picture of Hoover's in which his grandparents pose proudly when the station was brand new.
Unlike today's unremarkable, automated gas stops, these idiosyncratic places, with their sculptural pumps, whimsical signage and mom-and-pop aura, radiate pure Americana. Mr. Graefe uses these photos as a guide for buying old pieces. "Certain people look at Sports Illustrated," Mr. Graefe says. "I'd rather look at these."
Like all hard-core collectors, Mr. Graefe can "talk signs and pumps for hours." And he isn't big on moderation. His gas pump collection began with a single specimen 12 years ago and has grown to 55. It includes several clock face pumps, common in the 1930s, as well as a Gulf "visible pump," circa-1926, which guaranteed customers got what they paid for.
A regular at the mammoth biannual automobilia show in Carlisle, Pa., Mr. Graefe also combs flea markets, lesser swap meets and barns for automobile artifacts. Recently he heard of a stash of old globes in a Pennsylvania barn 100 miles away and couldn't resist taking a look. "I don't pass up anything," he says.
Mr. Graefe came away with five original globes covered with straw and pigeon droppings. Scrubbed clean, they were magnificent. "The whole family went wild," he says.
Mrs. Graefe, a school bus driver, shares her husband's love of automotive culture. She can gaze through her kitchen window at the glowing Rainbow Gasoline pump her husband restored for her and placed picturesquely among the impatiens.
When he began collecting, Mr. Graefe had no idea that he was in the vanguard of a hobby that now claims untold numbers of fanatics. While he came to his passion by birth, others are drawn to automobilia as an emblem of childhood, when mom, dad and the kids religiously took to the road, minus seat belts, fuel shortages and those pesky catalytic converters.
"Americans have an undying love affair with the automobile," says Eric H. Killorin, editor of Mobilia, a Vermont-based magazine dedicated toauto collectibles and history. "The vast numbers of collectors today hail from the baby-boom era. . . . We all grew up traveling, perhaps on the nation's highways with our parents [and we want] to preserve some element of our youth."
Mr. Killorin, a collector himself, started his publication, "Because I could sense a very strong and growing market for automotive collectibles, anything from automotive art books and literature, right on through pedal cars, toys and oil and gas company collectibles."
The "first true gas station" was opened by the Gulf Oil Corporation in Pittsburgh in 1913, according to "Gas Station Collectibles," by Mark Anderton and Sherry Mullen. As more and more motorists took to the road, competing oil companies, large and small, "tried to forge [their] own identity with logos, signs, slogans, etc.," providing a wealth of material for future collectors.
Scott Benjamin, a frequent Mobilia contributor and automobilia dealer based in Ohio, first beheld the glories of glass globes at a Smithsonian Institution exhibit 20 years ago. The globes were manufactured from 1912 through the 1950s to adorn gas pumps; while mostly phased out, they can be spotted occasionally atop pumps at rural stations. It took Mr. Benjamin a year to find and buy his own globe. "Once I did, that was it, I wanted more," says Mr. Benjamin, 39.
The co-author of a book on gas pump globes, Mr. Benjamin was ahead of the automobilia collecting curve as well. The hobby "really started taking off probably about 10 years ago," he says. Until then, "We had no organized newsletters, no books," says Mr. Benjamin, editor of a hobby newsletter, Check Your Oil. Now, numerous automobilia books are published annually, he says.
Other evidence points to the hobby's vigor. "We have numerous conventions around the country," Mr. Benjamin says. "Thousands of people attend. I estimate there are probably at least 20,000 to 30,000 collectors out there."
Unlike some collecting spheres, where coveted objects are scarce or unaffordable, plenty of reasonably priced automobilia can be had. "Believe me, you can collect anything," Mr. Benjamin says. "Giveaways from gas stations are getting real popular, as are bars of soap and glasses, and matches and tire kits. The things they gave away in the 1960s are highly collectible now and are pretty cheap."
What constitutes "cheap" is in the mind of the collector. A service station giveaway glass from the 1960s sells for about $5, Mr. Graefe says. That, to his way of thinking, isn't cheap.
At the high end, glass globes can sell for as much as $15,000, and certain 1-gallon cans are worth as much as $3,000, according to "Gas Station Collectibles." Some collectors buy valuable automotive artifacts purely for investment purposes, Mr. Benjamin says.
Mr. Graefe is not in the hobby to hedge against a volatile stock market. He collects for the sheer love of auto culture and proudly displays his collection inside and outside his country home and garages.
There are fuses, quart oil cans, a Phillips 66 automobile tube kit, a towel rack and a map rack that accommodates a fraction of Mr. Graefe's 500 road maps, once free for the asking at filling stations.
An original porcelain Pensupreme ice cream sign, similar to one that graced Hoover's, hangs from a garage. There is a Kendall Motor Oil sign, a generic "Welcome to our Service Department" as well as an "Enjoy Squirt" sign. Mr. Graefe has premiums and gas station giveaways galore, such as an ice scraper from the old Milford Mill Esso and a can opener courtesy of a Centralia, Kan., station.
A fascination with antique autos preceded Mr. Graefe's plunge into auto paraphernalia. In one garage, sits the glorious canary-yellow '41 Ford that he dredged out of a junkyard and rebuilt from scratch. Members of the Unknown Street Rodders, hobbyists who restore and modernize pre-1949 cars, he and Mrs. Graefe motor to conventions and swap meets in air-conditioned, vintage comfort.
Mr. Graefe's original gas pump globes, including a prize find bearing the Blue Sunoco trademark, are tucked away for safe keeping. But when his wife asked for a light near the garage, he installed one pump topped with a reproduction Phillips 66 globe. Now, 12 pumps line the driveway. On timers, they illuminate the Graefe property as night falls.
The pump queue grew by popular demand, Mr. Graefe says. "Whenever someone would praise one, we'd add another one."